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The Boston Globe

A Florida 'runoff benefit'?

Brian C. Mooney

Boston Globe, 4/15/2001

Democracy is imperfect, as last fall's presidential election demonstrated. Divining the will of the body politic can be an inexact science, even a messy business.

Unquestionably, the Florida recount fiasco shook many Americans' confidence in our electoral system. But it has also propelled efforts to overhaul and fine-tune the ''winner-take-all'' tradition in US politics.

At least five states are considering proposals to establish so-called ''instant runoff elections,'' also known as ''preferential voting.'' Under this system, voters rank the candidates in multiple-candidate fields by preference, rather than voting for just one person. When no candidate receives more than 50 percent in the first tally, the secondary preferences are counted to determine the winner.

This election method, proponents argue vigorously, provides a way to reflect majority sentiment, even in a 10-candidate race.

Instant runoffs would also eliminate the either-or burden borne by ''spoiler'' candidates like Ralph Nader of the Green Party faced. In last year's presidential election, had Nader been able to urge his supporters to cast their second-preference vote for Al Gore, the Democrat would probably be president, and Nader would be a hero, not a pariah, to Democratic stalwarts.

Preferential voting has been used since 1918 in Australia and for many years in Ireland. In 1990, second-preference votes lifted Mary Robinson to become the first woman president of the Republic of Ireland. She was second among three candidates who failed to win a majority of first-preference votes.

Vermont is among the five states contemplating instant runoffs; the others are Washington, New Mexico, California, and Alaska. The idea may be worth a serious look in Massachusetts, too, because on the 2002 Democratic primary ballot, there could be four or more candidates for each of four constitutional offices and one or two congressional seats.

Under current state law, the leading vote-getter in those primaries could skate to the final election, perhaps with 30 percent of the vote or less. With a weak Republican Party in the state, most, if not all, of the Democratic primary victors would become odds-on favorites in the November election.

That scenario has played out many times here and across the country as plurality winners were nominated by their parties or elected outright. Current New England governors who won their first term with slim pluralities include Connecticut Republican John Rowland (36 percent in 1994) and Maine independent Angus King (35 percent the same year).

In the Bay State, there have been many plurality winners, particularly in party primaries. In 1998, Somerville Mayor Michael E. Capuano, with 23 percent of the vote, won a 10-candidate Democratic primary in the 8th Congressional District. In the lopsidedly Democratic 8th, it was tantamount to election.

If preferential voting had been in effect in 1996, Philip W. Johnston would almost certainly be the congressman from the 10th Congressional District today, instead of chairman of the state Democratic Party. Johnston lost by 119 votes in a three-way primary to William D. Delahunt, who won 38 percent of the vote in a contest that went to a Florida-style recount, complete with chads and dimples and pregnant punchcard ballots. Newcomer Ian Bowles was out of the running with 22 percent of the vote but ran a strong second to Johnston in the Cape Cod and Islands region of the district. If Bowles's backers had been allowed to express a second preference, it's a pretty safe bet most would have chosen Johnston, thus giving him the edge.

Individuals can decide whether it's good or bad, but it's hard to argue against the proposition that preferential voting provides a better vehicle to reflect public sentiment.

''I think any election system that doesn't produce a majority winner is a disservice to the voters,'' said George Pillsbury, policy director of Boston Vote, a nonpartisan organization working to increase voter participation in Boston and other urban areas.

''The current system opens the door for a very unpopular candidate in a very crowded field,'' he said.

Mickey Edwards, the former eight-term Republican congressman from Oklahoma, is amazed that Massachusetts does not employ runoffs, either of the instant or traditional variety, meaning a second primary election with the top two finishers facing off.

''It seems to me it's the only legitimate way of conducting an election,'' said Edwards, who for seven years has been John Quincy Adams lecturer in legislative politics at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. ''That way the majority of voters are not cut out of the process, represented by somebody most of them didn't want.'' Oklahoma is one of the 11 states that use traditional, not instant, runoffs to ensure majority winners in party primaries.

Instant runoffs preserve the winner-take-all concept but greatly refine it by factoring in the second choice (or in larger fields, even more choices) of voters whose favorite is a weaker candidate. And they eliminate the more conventional runoff elections, which are expensive and often draw skimpy turnouts.

The concept was actually invented in Massachusetts around 1870 by professor W.R. Ware of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, according to the Washington-based Center for Voting and Democracy, an instant runoff advocacy group.

It could be a tough sell today in its birthplace, however. Secretary of State William F. Galvin, the state's chief election officer, said there are ''very real and practical problems'' to implementing such a system here.

''The first problem is you have to get a law passed'' by the Legislature, Galvin said. ''The second is you have to educate the populace about how it works.''

Let the education begin: Here are details on how an instant runoff might work in Massachusetts.

If a candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, he or she is nominated or elected, and that's it. But, in a multi-candidate field, if no candidate receives a majority, the preference voting kicks in.

Let's say three candidates are running for office. On the ballot, which resembles a State Lottery betting slip, there will be next to each name three ovals, numbered 1, 2, and 3.

Using a special pen, voters color in the oval numbered ''1'' next to their top choice, the oval numbered ''2'' next to their second choice.

Suppose candidate A receives 39 percent of the first-preference votes (number ones), candidate B 34 percent, and candidate C 27 percent. No one tops 50 percent, so the instant runoff begins.

Candidate C is eliminated, and his or her second-preference votes are apportioned to his rivals. If they split evenly, candidates A and B each receive another 14 percent, and A beats B, 52-48 percent.

It works the same way in larger fields. Using ''sequential elimination'' of weaker candidates, one per round, backup votes are transferred to other candidates until one tops 50 percent.

But what if B and C were both conservative candidates and A was the lone liberal? In that case, B probably would receive most of the second preferences on C's ballots. Maybe they would break B's way in a ratio of 2 to 1. In that case, B would win, 52-48, and an aggregated conservative majority would prevail.

It happens all the time in states that now hold conventional runoff elections, so-called second primaries. For example, in Florida, Lawton Chiles became US senator and Bob Graham governor by overcoming second-place first-primary finishes with runoff victories.

A full-blown second election isn't necessary anymore. Modern optical scanning technology and computer software permit the results of large-field preferential voting to be calculated rapidly.

The City of Cambridge uses such technology for its ''proportional representation'' elections of city councilors and school committee members. The old manual counts took about a week. The computerized counts, according to Teresa Neighbor, executive director of the city's election commission, take minutes.

 

 
 
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